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A look at Rahul Gandhi, who is trying to wrest power from India's most powerful man

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two of the most consequential election races in India involve the man who represents the country's most prominent political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi. He's trying to wrest power from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from the southern state of Kerala.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Shirtless drummers draw eyeballs to a rally for Rahul Gandhi. Supporters chant his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: Rahul Gandhi belongs to the Indian Congress Party long dominated by his family. His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, also served as prime minister. So did his uncle. So did his father, Rajiv. His mother, a legislator.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: On a recent day, Rahul's sister campaigned for her brother. He's running for a district called Wayanad. It's in the jungle highlands of the southern state of Kerala. Rahul's sister tells a crowd, you've become his family.

PRIYANKA GANDHI: He has made you his family.

(CHEERING)

HADID: Adoration like this can be harder to find elsewhere. The fortunes of the Gandhis and the Congress Party have waned over the past decade as the Hindu nationalist BJP expanded its base, led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi. In the last elections, Rahul Gandhi even lost his seat to a BJP candidate. But in India, candidates can run for two seats simultaneously, and Rahul Gandhi won the seat of Wayanad in Kerala. Now he's vying for reelection. He's up against a woman who'd like you to know she doesn't come from political royalty like Rahul Gandhi.

ANNIE RAJA: My father was a agricultural worker. And my mother was a daily worker.

HADID: Annie Raja has humble roots, but she's a senior member of the Communist Party. Here in Kerala, the main rivalry has long been between the Congress Party and the Communists. The Hindu nationalist BJP is a marginal player here. But Raja tells me, if Rahul Gandhi wants to prove he can be a national leader, he has to win against a BJP candidate, not her, a Communist.

RAJA: Contesting against a leftist shows the political bankruptcy of Congress Party, as well as Rahul.

HADID: Days after I spoke to Annie Raja...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: All the speculation is over. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi will fight for a second seat.

HADID: Rahul Gandhi's people announced he'd run for a second seat in northern India, a stronghold now of the BJP. But the seat he chose to contest has long been held by his family, most recently by his mother. Still, it would show Indians that Rahul Gandhi can win in the BJP heartland.

PREM PANICKER: The feeling in the party seemed to be that Rahul Gandhi planting the flag would be big.

HADID: Prem Panicker is a veteran journalist, and he says Rahul Gandhi needs to show he's got a fight in him because for years, Gandhi left the impression that he was a guy who wanted nothing more than to...

PANICKER: Chill at home, smoke a joint, watch some Netflix.

HADID: Panicker says Rahul Gandhi always seemed ambivalent about inheriting this powerful, dynastic political job. It could be because the dynasty he was born into was laced with trauma. His grandmother was assassinated in 1984. Years later, his father was killed by a suicide bomber. But about two years ago, something changed. Panicker says it seems Rahul Gandhi realized he had to lead to save the Congress Party and the idea of India as a secular state against the might of the rival BJP, which seeks Hindu supremacy. Rahul Gandhi walked across India from tropical jungles to snowy Himalayan peaks. He talked about the India he believed in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: It worked - to a point. Thousands turned up to see him speak and walk with him.

PANICKER: The ground troops realized that they could match the BJP stripe for stripe. They were capable of pulling something off. They hadn't lost it.

HADID: Now, Rahul Gandhi's Congress Party appears to be doing better than expected in these elections. But analysts say Modi's BJP is still slated to win. But could Gandhi at least win the two seats he's contesting? Can he show Indians that he's a leader in waiting?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

HADID: Back in Wayanad in the jungles of the southern state of Kerala, it's not the soaring questions of state that will help Gandhi win, but if he can convince voters that he can solve their most pressing problem - tigers and elephants killing farmers, like in the village of Moodakolly. Farmer Nirish Mollekapullatummoorlederan (ph) walks us down a path. He says, here, a tiger mauled and killed his friend while he was in the field.

NIRISH MOLLEKAPULLATUMMOORLEDERAN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: The farmer tells us he's going to vote for the person who can help them. He says, that's the Communist Party candidate, Annie Raja.

MOLLEKAPULLATUMMOORLEDERAN: (Non-English language).

HADID: He says, as for this village, it's neck and neck, Communist versus Congress, Annie Raja versus Rahul Gandhi. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Moodakolly, Wayanad Electorate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.

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